by Collette Broady Grund
I Kings 3:4-9 (10-15), 16-28
This week offers another opportunity to talk about uses of power that are pleasing to God, with the ascension of Solomon, the second child of David and Bathsheba, to the throne of Israel.
Though the first verses of the chapter seem to serve only to establish the context of Solomon’s dream, the detail that he is sacrificing at the high places and that there is no temple yet are important. Solomon will be remembered mostly for being the king who builds the first temple, which becomes the center of life for God’s people for generations to come. However, the question of where Solomon sacrifices and to whom will be one that plagues his kingship and his relationship with God. Though he loves the LORD, the God of Israel, his heart will later be divided by idols and foreign deities.
Here, at the beginning of his kingship, Solomon shows himself to be of similar heart to his father David. When God appears in a dream, Solomon is commanded to ask for a gift to aid him in ruling. Solomon displays humility by asking for wisdom and discernment, rather than riches or revenge. He calls himself a little child in the midst of a great people, and knows he needs God’s help to govern well. His humility pleases God, who gives not only what he asks, but riches, honor and long life as well.
The second half of the chapter is the famous story that is meant to display Solomon’s wisdom. Though hearers will certainly understand the point of the story, the details are horrific. A child has died, and Solomon displays no compassion for the women, instead threatening to cut a baby in half. The grieving mother is insensible. Has her grief so overwhelmed her that she believes she can have half a child instead of none? Is she so mired in her own pain that she can’t care about anyone else’s, or worse, wants someone else to understand what she feels? The fact that Solomon calls for an actual sword, whether he intends to use it or not, is monstrous, and will make the modern reader wonder whether God’s gift of wisdom and discernment has yet taken effect.
It is notable that prostitutes could get a direct audience with the king, and his technique seems to work in determining the true mother of the living child. However, it is important to say that Solomon’s treatment of these women does not represent what we should expect of God when we appeal to God for justice or in our grief. This a story is meant to prove a point about Solomon having wisdom, and we preachers have to wrestle with whether it proves that point well or not. Either way, the people of Israel perceive this is a wise and just act by their king, and they stand in awe of his connection to the wisdom and justice of God.
For preaching, I am drawn to the answer Solomon gives God in the first half of the chapter. Twice, Solomon mentions the steadfast love (chesed in Hebrew, the covenantal kind of love and fidelity) first as given to his father David, and then to him as the son. This steadfast loyalty of God to Solomon’s family is the bedrock of Solomon’s experience of God, the foundation on which his whole life has been built. It is because of that experience of God’s love and faithfulness that he knows his place in the greater scheme of God’s plan. Yes, he is king, but he is still one of a great number of those chosen by God. He doesn’t see himself as special because he is king, but rather because he is one of the many chosen people. His power and authority, and his ability to carry out the tasks to which God has called him, depend not on his own qualifications, but on the steadfast love and faithfulness of the One who has called him.
Whatever God’s people are called to do today, whether great deeds or small, the same is true for us. It is our grounding in the love and faithfulness of God that gives us the ability to discern that call in the first place, and it is our trust in those same attributes of God that enable us to fulfill our callings. When we stay rooted in the covenant God has made with us, we remember that even the greatest among us are little children in God’s view, but that even little children can be wise and doers of justice with the LORD’s help.